George Will’s Tepid Defense of Freedom

The Conservative Sensibility
by George F. Will
Hachette Books, 2019
xxxix + 600 pp.

The well-known Washington columnist George Will was long ago a libertarian, but he soon changed his mind, adopting instead a statist variety of conservatism. In The Conservative Sensibility, he returns to his libertarian roots, but the return is incomplete, and he ends up with a confused position that, in trying to do justice to competing goods, as he sees it, ends up in intellectual sloppiness.

The great historian Ralph Raico, who knew Will in the late 1950s, tells the story of his early political beliefs:

As it happened, at Princeton Bruce [Goldberg] also came to know another grad student, this time in political science, named George Will. Will was another run of the mill member of the American intelligentsia, a “liberal” in the mold of his father, a well thought of professor of philosophy at Champaign/Urbana. Bruce, then the dynamic, genial propagator of our ideas, converted Will as well. Temporarily. Will left to study at Oxford, where he was seduced by the tradition of Tory paternalism he discovered there. Cecil Rhodes would have been pleased.

George Will went on to compose Tory-statist pieces like those collected in his truly embarrassing book, Statecraft as Soulcraft, the title reminiscent of the Stalinist definition of Party intellectuals as “engineers of the soul.” When Nozick and I were still in touch, Bob once remarked of Will with a laugh that…[his] “idea of politics was to remake everyone in his own boring image.” 

I would add to Ralph’s characteristically excellent account that George Will’s father, Frederick Will, was an outstanding philosopher, in my view one of the best American philosophers of his time. (He wrote about, logic, metaphysics, and epistemology, not politics.) If only his son had his talent and wisdom!

A good place to begin our investigation is with the “truly embarrassing book.” Will says that he has changed his position. People need to be educated in virtue, as he argued in Statecraft as Soulcraft, but he was wrong to think that this is, in the main, the task of the state. To the contrary, commercial society does the job far better:

Another of the book’s themes was quite wrong. It was that the American nation was “ill-founded” because too little attention was given to the explicit cultivation of the virtues necessary for the success of a republic. In fact, the nature of life in a commercial society under limited government is a daily instruction in the self-reliance and politeness—taken together, the civility—of a lightly governed open society. Capitalism requires, and therefore capitalism develops, a society in which economic dealings are lubricated by the disposition and ability to trust strangers. (pp. 227–28)

Not only is the free market better suited than the state to teach virtue, but the state is ill-equipped to do so.

The most succinct summation of Hayek’s thinking is…from his last book…The Fatal Conceit. “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design”….The more complex society becomes, the more government should defer to the spontaneous order generated by the voluntary cooperation of freely contracting individuals. (pp. 246–47)

It would appear that Will has executed a complete volte face. And not only that. Will now avers that people have inalienable natural rights. He goes so far as to say that

[t]he concept [of the social contract] illustrated the idea that certain rights are so natural, so essential to human flourishing, that governments are instituted to “secure,” not to bestow, them. This, of course, is the language of the most important paragraph in humanity’s political history, the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. (p. 37, my emphasis)

Does it not follow that not only is it a bad idea for the government to seize people’s property in a futile effort to design the economy, but it is also wrong, a violation of rights, for it to do so?

Alas, for Will it does not follow. For him, rights do not delimit a sphere immune from the government’s interference but provide only a presumption against its doing so.

The essential drama of democracy derives from the inherent tension between the natural rights of the individual and the constructed right of the community to make such laws as the majority deems necessary and proper. Natural rights are affirmed by the Declaration of Independence; majority rule, circumscribed and modulated, is constructed by the Constitution. (p. 150)

The “progressives” have gone too far; rather than rely on a centralized administration, as they advocate, we should rely on the system of checks and balances in the Constitution, whose principal author was James Madison, of whom Will has an extraordinarily high opinion.

Statecraft as soulcraft, then, is by no means out of the picture. “Therefore, although the right to freedom exists prior to government, it depends for its enjoyment on institutions of civil society and government. Hence, statecraft is, inescapably, soulcraft, because education is, too” (p. 358). The state, it transpires, must not only provide public schools but other “public goods” as well. Will devotes several pages to praising Abraham Lincoln, one of his heroes, for promoting road building and other sorts of “infrastructure.” The Hamiltonian “American System” of Henry Clay is quite compatible with natural rights, as Will conceives them—but the government must not go too far.

In foreign policy, also, Will first makes a sound point but then retreats. He rightly deplores Woodrow Wilson’s efforts to “make the world safe for democracy,” and in a mordant passage, he mocks Wilson’s messianic mentality.

In 1912, he likened constructing his “New Freedom” to erecting a “great building” in which “men can live as a single community, cooperative as in a perfected, coordinated beehive.” Human beings as bees? God wants this because, as Wilson also said to an associate in 1912, “God ordained that I should be the next president of the United States.” God or History. This was a distinction without much difference when a Presbyterian’s sense of the providential was melded with a progressive belief in teleological history. (p. 67)

One can forgive Will much for this wonderful anecdote, also directed at a purveyor of teleological history:

In 1963, when the Oxford University Press published the third and final volume of Isaac Deutscher’s admiring biography of Leon Trotsky, Oxford’s student Marxist club held a reception for Deutscher to celebrate the occasion. I was then a student at Oxford and attended this fete, where I heard Deutscher say: “Proof of Trotsky’s farsightedness is that none of his predictions have come true yet.” (p. 259)

Although he is quick to condemn the progressives who wish to impose American-style democracy on the entire world, ready for it or not, his own conception of foreign policy allows much room for intervention, and his “moderation” is no more than an all-too-familiar neoconservatism.

Americans should not regret the fact that their nation’s foreign policy will always have a meliorist dimension. It flows from two premises. First, America has a mission to make the world better because the American model of a pluralistic commercial republic is a universally valid aspiration. And exporting the model is in the national interest because spreading bourgeois civilization, with its preoccupations with pluralism and prosperity, is a way to tranquilize an often murderous world. (p. 453)

Will, it is apparent, lacks the analytic rigor of Rothbard, Raico, Nozick, and Goldberg, far to be preferred to Will’s “conservative sensibility.”

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